Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Either ineffective or unaltruistic

I'm not saying that effective altruism is a scam. I believe that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett sincerely want to use their billions to improve the world. Furthermore with one or two notable exceptions, I think that the Gates foundation and similar organizations have produced important, worthwhile work.

My feelings about some of the specific proposals and methods are a bit more mixed. There's nothing wrong with taking a cold cost-benefit approach to these questions – – if anything that's how I like to do it – – but too much what we've seen has been both overly assured of its own rightness and insufficiently aware of the assumptions that have to be made and the innate murkiness of many of the questions that have to be answered.

My three major issues with effective altruism are:

I have an instinctive distrust of "we're just saying _____________" pitches where invariably the seemingly simple common sense statements are hiding lots of far more debatable and less straightforward claims;

while there are notable exceptions and I can almost hear the eyes rolling what I say this, I generally trust the judgment of governments over rich people in these matters;

any philosophy built around encouraging individuals to accumulate fantastic fortunes so that they can spend them on worthy causes will soon run into the problem that while lots of wealthy people will loudly voice their support for this idea, their actual commitment to the first part will be considerably more reliable than their commitment to the second part.

On a somewhat related point, check out this story from Matt Levine's newsletter:

A less clever — but faster? — form of effective altruism would be “we build a giant casino for crypto gambling, then we steal all the money and use it to buy mosquito nets.” Arguably that is closer to what Bankman-Fried was actually up to, though that’s not quite right either. FTX actually recovered most of the client money, but also it does not seem to have notably devoted a ton of customer money to effective charitable works on behalf of the world’s poorest. 

“We build a giant casino for crypto gambling, steal the money and use it to buy a castle for effective altruist philosophers” is even weirder? Like that’s a good assignment for a philosophy class? “Explain, using utilitarianism, how this is Good, Actually”:

Effective Ventures Foundation bought Wytham Abbey in April 2022 for £14.9 million ($18.6 million) with grants from Open Philanthropy, whose funders include billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. The purchase initially stirred controversy that a charity dedicated to the most efficient use of money for the maximum good was buying one of the finest manor homes in England—and later for Effective Ventures’ connections to crypto swindler Sam Bankman-Fried. ….

While grants from Open Philanthropy were used to fund the purchase and maintenance of Wytham Abbey, Effective Ventures also received money from FTX Foundation—the charity associated with Bankman-Fried, who was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Effective Ventures has since come to a settlement with the FTX estate and paid back the $26.8 million given to it by FTX Foundation.

It’s amid such turmoil that Wytham Abbey is being listed on the open market for £15 million with Charles Elsmore-Wickens at Savills, who spoke exclusively with Bloomberg ahead of the historic listing. For that price, a buyer would get a 27,000-square-foot stately home with 27 bedrooms and 18 bathrooms on 23 acres just 3 miles west of Oxford.

Fine right FTX didn’t actually buy them the castle, but now they have to sell the castle after paying back the money that FTX did give them. Probably that was for mosquito nets.


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